back to article Who owns space? Looking at the US asteroid-mining act

An event of cosmic proportions occurred on 18 November when the US congress passed the Space Act of 2015 into law. The legislation will give US space firms the rights to own and sell natural resources they mine from bodies in space, including asteroids. Although the act, passed with bipartisan support, still requires President …

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          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: No problem for a long time to come

            Given the cost of getting metal into orbit the principle advantage of space mined stuff is that it's already up there. If you have a couple of million tons of Ti in orbit it is a lot easier to use it build something to go to mars than land it on earth and then launch it again.

      1. John 110

        Re: No problem for a long time to come

        I think there's a big shiny power source already up there....

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: No problem for a long time to come

          But you need to be near it or have big shiny mylar mirrors for some harvesting. Why not?

  1. Haku

    Who owns space?

    Isn't that like two fleas on a dog arguing over who owns it?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Who owns space?

      And the dog is standing on a bigger dog, and it's dogs all the way down...

    2. Mikel

      Re: Who owns space?

      Shocker: everything on Earth is also "in space".

  2. TRT Silver badge

    Wasn't something like this tried before?

    When individual prospectors were encouraged financially to travel into the great continental interior at their own expense to explore and exploit, creating their own infrastructure on the way?

    Space. The final frontier town.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Wasn't something like this tried before?

      "at their own expense"

      'twas a racket. I think the "civil-war" "hardened" cavalry did the ethnic suppression to have a suitably pristine place. You will also find that railroads and telegraphs where heavily subsidized (leading to the usual "milk the taxpayer" / "ear near the government" shenanigans - I hear even Abe Lincoln was big in "predicting" what lands would soon appreciate as a railroad would pass nearby).

      Space will be not much like that. I hope.

      But I also saw "Outland" when I was a kid.

  3. NBCanuck

    Home Delivery

    Ok. Say a private company successfully mines an asteroid, that there are no other claims to property, and the material is deemed devoid of life. What happens should there be a small "issue" when attempting to bring the material back to earth. Who's going to underwrite THAT insurance policy?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Happy

      Re: Home Delivery

      The one that isn't in a smouldering crater?

      1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

        Re: Home Delivery

        The one that isn't in a smouldering crater?

        That may be even more interesting than you think.

        Second law of Newton is a b***. If you start mounting an en engine on every package the economic case for any bulk goods from orbit to Earth disappears in a jiffie. Even a tug is likely to be too expensive. So you have to calculate the whole thing for slinging the packages out of a "slingshot" launch catapult and only adjust the package final trajectory during reentry.

        That ends up in quite an interesting orbital mechanics problem as launching every package from a rather large (several km at least) asteroid in Earth orbit will push that asteroid out of its parking position. The difference between a crater made by a small 1-2 tons delivery package and the crater done by an asteroid multiple km in size is quite substantial. Underwriting _THAT_ risk will be the really interesting part.

        1. Vinyl-Junkie

          Re: Home Delivery

          Time to mention the space elevator? Of course as that would terminate in territory outside US jurisdiction US companies will have to conform to international law.

          1. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
            Pint

            Re: Home Delivery

            Space elevator.

            Put a pulley at the top and loop the cable around an electric motor on the ground. Makes the whole concept much easier to implement.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Home Delivery

          Space freight elevators, full auto manufacture, moon base terminals, interplanetary travel.

          All of the dreams from the 60's revisited.

          We just need space suits with flares and my life will be complete.

          .

          (Edit: beaten to it by seconds!)

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Home Delivery

            Oo! OO!

            .

            And a real Nostromo transport and refinery!!

            .

            (think I need to dial back the coffee, getting a little over-excited over a bunch of maybes)

            1. Vinyl-Junkie

              Re: Home Delivery

              of course the moon base will need Eagle Transporters!

              1. Neil Barnes Silver badge
                Alien

                Re: Home Delivery

                So what you do, right (with apologies to the author who first thought of this) is you make your metal into a globe sufficiently thin to withstand atmospheric pressure, but large enough to float at around 30,000 feet. Fill it full of vacuum; there's loads out there.

                Then you park it over a convenient lawmaker and drill a small hole...

    2. Vinyl-Junkie
      Mushroom

      Re: Home Delivery

      Especially when you consider the size of payload needed to make this economically viable. Even for the more expensive elements you would have to be talking about payloads in the tens of tonnes. A far cry from the ISS resupply capsules etc. A fraction out in the re-entry burn and Washington DC might get upclose and personal with a returning ore-carrier....

      There's probably a downside, too....

    3. John G Imrie Silver badge

      Re: Home Delivery

      Simple you don't bring it back. You use it to build manufacturing plants to create much smaller and more valuable things, like drugs.

      1. Vinyl-Junkie

        Re: Home Delivery

        Doesn't matter; de-orbiting ten tonnes of anything is still cheaper per tonne than de-orbiting it in ten one-tonne packages.

        Only if your end market is entirely space-based (currently unlikely) does final delivery cease to be an issue.

  4. Red Bren
    Mushroom

    Environmental Consequences

    Has no one considered the obvious eventual* consequence of bringing 1000s of metric tonnes of space materials down to earth every year? The earth's mass will increase, boosting the gravitational forces until the moon is pulled down from the sky and we won't have rockets powerful enough to allow our escape!

    * I'm not making the same mistake as those crazy end-of-the-world merchants by giving a date when this will happen. But when it does, don't say I didn't warn you...

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Environmental Consequences

      "Has no one considered the obvious eventual* consequence of bringing 1000s of metric tonnes of space materials down to earth every year?"

      Yes. Depending on who you believe and the measurements used, it's estimated that anything from 5 to 300 tonnes per DAY arrives in our atmosphere.

      Estimated mass of the Earth is 5.972 × 10^24 kg, so a few million tonnes won't make much difference. Especially since the Earths mass may be growing by as much as 110,000 tonnes per year or over 10 million tonnes every century. Or as little as 182,000 tonnes per century.

    2. DropBear Silver badge
      Trollface

      Re: Environmental Consequences

      "The earth's mass will increase, boosting the gravitational forces until the moon is pulled down from the sky"

      Uhhh, ignoring certain slight problems of scale and concentrating only on the principle of the thing - you ARE aware that currently the Moon is literally inch-ing _away_ each year from the Earth, yes...? Two stones with one bird perhaps...?

      1. hplasm Silver badge
        Happy

        Re: Environmental Consequences

        Whoosh!

        The sound of the moon being pulled down to the earth.

        By Gru!

      2. Red Bren

        Re: Environmental Consequences

        Oh yes, that reminds me, I can teach you an ancient* moon repelling chant that's been passed down from generation to generation** for a very reasonable fee. Thank you DropBear for the link to prove it works...

        * from a few minutes ago

        ** well it will be when I teach it to my kids. It's not my fault my ancestors failed to pass on secrets of the universe...

  5. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    Creative/Destructive Memes. They be the tools and weapons of spooky entangling forces and sources.

    The cyber environment is an altogether alien space and it has no mass or matter to command and control with remote anonymous input/autonomous virtual machine output and fly a rad rag flag over. And when IT's a wonderfully enterprising hearts and minds capturing place, is it free from the folly of fools which be as myriad ancient tools in earthed pedestrian systems of executive administration and program operation.

    Claiming it to be yours in order to deny it being theirs is one of those typically pointless politically incorrect exercises which destroy regimes with the evidence of a lack of necessary future relative intelligence on open display.

  6. Joe Gurman

    I don't even play a lawyer on TV

    ....and Mr. Oduntan c;early knows far more about law than I ever will, but even Wikipedia considers the Moon Treaty as "a failed treaty because it has not been ratified by any state that engages in self-launched manned space exploration or has plans to do so." India is a signatory, and it might change its collective mind if it decides to start a manned programme, but right now, excepting India, it is only nations that feel they will be left out of the economic exploitation of bodies in space that have signed on. I urge readers to consult Wikipedia on this, if only for the sake of the large red (non-parties) part of the globe on the "ratification and signatories" map.

    Instead of complaining and pointing to a failed international law, perhaps the best route for countries concerned about the behavior of the few and the wealthy in mining space objects, other governments could encourage public investment in those efforts, so as to have a shareholder's say in how it was done, and with what safeguards to the earth. ("Oops, missed our re-entry target. Sorry, Copenhagen.")

    I'm not an economist either, so I have no idea if any such scheme is likely to be profitable this century, but even as a wettish leftie, I like the idea of capitalists rather than governments leading us farther into space. No waste of tax revenues if the whole things goes pear-shaped.

  7. Tom 7 Silver badge

    I think I get it

    once you are a US citizen you pay tax on your earnings wherever you are (unless some inter country agreement....) So now you get to own some space and they get to tax you on it?

  8. DougS Silver badge

    This is not a problem for asteroids

    There are apparently a lot of them up there, so if someone goes to all the expense to send a vehicle out to one and they can find something worth commercially mining, they deserve the profit from exploiting that one asteroid. I suspect it won't turn out to be profitable in my lifetime, unless someone with a really good telescope has spotted an asteroid that's 50% platinum by weight.

    But people will try, and that will push the economics of space launching forward. And maybe I'm wrong (or eventually wrong) and we'll end all the pollution from wasteful gold mining on Earth as it becomes much more profitable to look for gold in the asteroid belt due to the volumes of it and Earth based miners are priced out. That would be a good outcome for our planet.

    The only thing I'm really worried about is leaving space junk or rocks or whatever in Earth orbit where they will be a hazard. That needs to be very carefully policed - insurance should be required to cover this eventuality for any commercial enterprise going into space. We all know about the tragedy of the commons, so we need to prevent that from day one when it comes to space.

    1. Mikel

      Re: This is not a problem for asteroids

      Ceres is an asteroid. It is 1000km diameter, mostly water by volume, and completely covered in high grade ore.

      1. DougS Silver badge

        Re: This is not a problem for asteroids

        A 1000km asteroid would have a significant gravity well compared to smaller ones. You need to economically get your material off it, especially if you aren't actually processing it in situ but are moving it elsewhere for easier processing (i.e. somewhere closer to the Sun where solar panels will work better than on Ceres)

        Maybe you'd need to establish some rules about the sizes, or named bodies or whatever that can't be so claimed, but I think it is unlikely anyone would want to claim Ceres if it meant they had to actually mine it for real, not just stick a lander on it and claim they are "exploring". There's no reason to expect that Ceres is unique in the quality of its ore, and its size/gravity makes it likely the best ores are deep under the crust as they are with Earth (but unlike Earth, volcanoes aren't going to bring the gold from the deeps to the surface) Ceres is probably the wrong rock to set up on.

  9. Tim Brown 1
    Happy

    I own a bit of the moon

    and I have a piece of paper to prove it!

    Anyone else remember the fad for 'selling' bits of space several years ago? Someone gave me a certificate of land ownership from MoonEstates as a xmas pressy. I shall pass it down to my heirs and one day one of them may be very rich... (or not)!

  10. Brian Allan 1

    Colonization by any other work...

    "What right has the second highest polluter of the Earth’s environment got to proceed with some of the same corporations in a bid to plunder outer space?"

    Colonization is still alive and well in the USofA! :(

  11. David Roberts
    Go

    Ownership before re-entry?

    If the results of mining in space are to be returned to earth (noting the discussions above) then ownership has to be clearly established both in space and on the ground.

    Otherwise the metal is likely to be classed as a meteorite and claimed by whoever owns the landing spot (or first gets to the object if it is in International waters).

    This goes with clear legal responsibility for any damage caused during arrival at the Earth's surface.

    So there does have to be a framework beyond "everyone/no-one owns everything" which we seem to have at the moment.

    Looking forward with SF for guidance, more interesting legal issues may arise once fully independent space habitats are developed, which require no legal presence on Earth because Earth has nothing that they want or need.

    So first steps in defining the legal interaction between space and Earth are necessary and I see them as a very positive thing. This implies that someone sees the prospect of future profit from space colonisation. Which implies space colonisation.

  12. Mikel

    Earth

    The Earth is also the province of all mankind. The rule on Earth is the same as in space: If you can take it, it's yours for as long as you can hold it.

  13. Chris G Silver badge

    The Question

    The article asks 'Who owns Space?'

    Of course it's obvious, Pindar and his acolytes own all of Earth and the Space surrounding it.

    If you don't have scales you are never going to own anything in Space.

  14. bjr

    It's science fiction but maybe it will help to get things moving forward again

    Nobody is going to be mining anything in space in our life times so the details of this law are irrelevant. However it is a statement that it's time to try a private approach to space exploration because governments have failed utterly. It's been 46 years since the moon landing and 60 years since Sputnik and where are we? America can't even repeat Alan Shepard's sub orbital flight let alone go to the moon again. The Russians can still put men in orbit using their space jalopy's, the 50 year old Soyuz, but they have nothing new. In 2017 if all goes well Space X will return America to 1965 where we can put a capsule in orbit. But Space X and Blue Origin are breaking no new ground, they are just building updated V2s like everyone else. Until something radical happens like space elevators, rail guns launchers, Bussard ram jets or some other sci-fi technology nobody is going to be doing any asteroid mining nothing in the solar system is worth millions of dollars per gram. which is what it would cost you to bring something back from an asteroid.

  15. Gary Bickford

    No space faring nation has signed the Moon treaty

    AFAIK no nation with the actual capability to go to Space has ever signed the Moon treaty. The wording of the Outer Space treaty is a subject of intense debate among experts. Iow the author knows not whereof he speaks, gas no dog in this fighg., and us I St trying to enable those the extreme greenies. I expect he will probably try to ban all human exploration to preserve the universe from "evil mankind". It appears he also is ignorant of biology. Humans exploring and populating Space, (and taking all of Earth Life along) to propagate across the solar system and beyond are doing nothing different than every species has always done, only the distance are larger. We are an expression of Life, carrying Life with us as we go.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    By passing this bill in the US it forces other nations to sit up and take action.

    If they haven't done it then nothing g would have moved forwards.

    They are provoking a reaction which will lead to improvement. From this starting g point, where at least they have put some thought into it, the real final Intl agreement can begin to develop.

  17. MachDiamond Silver badge

    Be Bold.

    The various space acts have not been revisited for quite some time and were written mostly when the US and the USSR were dominating the space race. Not that there wasn't justified concerns from other countries about getting no piece of the space pie if the two divvied up everything visible between them. With more countries and private companies getting into the space transportation business, it makes sense to strike out limitations such as not being able to mine off-Terra objects for a profit. Companies won't be able to sell space mining to their stockholders if there won't be any profit in it. The US's move might get parties interested in discussing the topics again, but in reality, they don't really mean anything and won't for quite some time.

    The prospect of prospecting off planet anytime soon shouldn't worry anybody. There's a load of hardware development and learning that needs to be done to start. Going to space and bringing materials back to the surface of Earth is massively expensive and as a space junkie and former rocket scientist, I have not seen any rational proposals that would lower the cost. It would be far easier and more profitable to reprocess old landfill sites for metals and other materials.

    Where space mining will come into it's own will be for off-planet orbital facilities and for bringing heavy(ier) metals to the moon since Earth's large gravity well is a major hinderance in developing industry in Luna. Will the UN send out a police force to arrest people harvesting materials from the astroids and using them to construct the Golden Rule Habitat circum-Luna?

  18. johnwerneken

    Excellent news!

    There IS no 'international law' as there is no enforcer.

    Commerce is an over-riding objective.

    Who dares, should win.

    The Romans also held that the purpose of the State was to be a tool in the hands of the most able - one of their few contentions based on evidence and backed up by their own behavior.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Excellent news! New Romans in the Hood

      And that is what is terrifying elitists, fiat capital executive systems, johnwerneken, for they are fronted by wannabes who are not worthy and representative of pretenders who are not able, and not able to future command and control virtually enable.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Clear and Pave

    Quite a few "Strip It, Clear it, pave it" types here.

    It is clear multinationals are now setting space policy and no longer answer to the citizens.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    When mankind is extinguished from it's presence on earth,all that will be left that signifies his mark,will be the mess that is left behind.

    ALL that has ever been done by mankind is to re-arrange the atoms of matter on this planet in the way that mankind deemed it necessary to survive in the short term.

    This 're-arrangement' of atoms from matter, is like the Andre PREVIN TV sketch on the Morecambe & Wise show.

    When playing the piano, Eric Morecambe says,"I am playing ALL the 'right' notes, just in the 'wrong' order".

    So too with mankind,the time was once, when all matter on earth was atomically speaking, in the 'right' order,no longer so,it is is 're-arranged' in the 'wrong' order by mankind,polluting the planet & all living things thereon.

    There is no such thing as a 'free lunch', the price will have to be paid in full,eventually & a high price it will be too.

    It is the arrogance of American capitalism, that NOTHING matters but 'risk' & 'reward' for a few Americans.

    It's time the world woke up to the game & changed it forever.

  21. earl grey Silver badge
    Trollface

    And yet you've missed the obvious

    Will you still be bending over when they probe Uranus and clean up those rings!

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Left Leaning Lament...

    ...Oh, boo-hoo! Those damned Yanks are at it again. They're going to get all the good pieces for themselves while we fiddle about and get nothing. Boo hoo hoo!

    El Reg has made a disastrous turn to the left.

    1. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

      Re: Left Leaning Lament...

      Only in your dreams, Billy C, and as such is weird entertainment.

  23. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    If contamination of celestial bodies is right out - doesn't that mean terraforming, say, Mars is off the table as well?

  24. JeffyPoooh Silver badge
    Pint

    "...without regulatory oversight during an eight-year period..."

    Eight years?

    Might as well be eight minutes.

    Eight years is the blink of an eye, unless someone has got 24 billion 1969-dollars to spend.

  25. kyza

    The funniest thing about this article is that the writer, for all his expertise, thinks earth laws will have any bearing on what private companies do outside of our gravity well once privste companies start building space habitats and factories in orbit around Earth and elsewhere...

    'We won't let you bring your asteroids to earth!' say the U.N. or whomever

    'If you don't allow us to bring them to earth slowly and make money from them, we'll bring them to earth via a mass accelerator and start flattening your cities, how about them apples?' say the Orbital conglomerates.

    The issue of extra-planetary sovereignty has been discussed to death in so many SF novels, and the general upshot is if you're at the bottom of a gravity well you're in no position to order anyone about.

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